Each week this month, The ARTery will highlight a story from the archives of Greater Boston's LGBTQ history. We're partnering with The History Project, which preserves these stories.
From the civil rights movement to the rise of feminism, the 1960s in the United States heralded an era of change and resistance to racist and sexist systems of power. By the '70s, the Combahee River Collective formed here in Boston out of a need to address the realities of queer and trans black women — groups that felt disenfranchised in other activist movements of the time.
You could trace the collective's start back to the early '70s in New York City. Future members, including co-founder Barbara Smith, attended the regional meetings of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) in 1973. The next year, these women left NBFO to define their own politics. They took their name, the Combahee River Collective, from a book Smith owned detailing the historic raid on Combahee River and the instrumental part Harriet Tubman played in the military operation that freed 750 slaves.
The collective met regularly between 1974 to 1981. Although the group wasn't exclusively for queer black women, the majority of the founding members identified as “black lesbians,” wrote co-founder Demita Frazier in a 1995 interview with “Sojourner: The Women’s Forum.” “In fact, most of us who were the founding sisters were lesbians or in the process of coming out: but there were heterosexual women who quickly joined us,” she said. Other notable members included Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke.
Frazier described many of the collective members as refugees from other movements. Within the civil rights movement, there was homophobia and misogyny; within the feminist movement, racism and a lack of initiative to understand womanhood through the lens of race. "I want to situate black lesbian and gay life in its appropriate context of Black social, political and cultural experience," wrote Barbara Smith in an interview with “Sojourner: The Women’s Forum.”
In 1977, the collective released the Combahee River Collective Statement. This statement is regarded as one of the infrastructural documents of contemporary black feminism. “We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women's lives as are the politics of class and race..." the statement reads. "If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression."
Members of the collective were actively involved in political struggles across Massachusetts, including desegregation in Boston schools and community campaigns against police brutality. In 1979, the collective was spurred to action when 12 black women were murdered in Boston within the span of five months.
Media coverage of the murders was lacking and there was no public acknowledgement from the police or mainstream media that the murders were sexually or racially driven. The collective released a series of pamphlets decrying the murders, calling attention to the racialized, sexual violence black women face. The purpose of these pamphlets was to raise awareness and to provide resources for women impacted.
At this point, the collective became unprecedentedly active, mobilizing communities to protest how the Boston Police Department and the media handled the murders. This culminated in a 500 person march on April 28, 1979 at the Boston Common where women protested racial and sexual violence.
Over the next two years, the collective disbanded, but their statement remained, helping to define and guide the path of both identity politics and black feminism.